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Abolish Public School

What is the proper relationship of school and state? In a free society, who is responsible for educating children? Toward answering these questions, consider James Madison's reasoning regarding the proper relationship of government and religion—reasoning that readily applies to the issue of education. In 1784, in response to Patrick Henry's call for a compulsory tax to support Christian (particularly Episcopalian) ministers, Madison penned his famous "Memorial and Remonstrance [Against Religious Assessments]," a stirring defense of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The heart of his argument can be reduced to three principles: First, individuals have an inalienable right to practice their religion as they see fit; second, religion must not be directed by the state; and third, religion is corrupted by government interference or control. Few Americans today would disagree with Madison's reasoning.


One virtue of Madison's response to Henry's bill is that its principles and logic extend beyond church-and-state relations. In fact, the principles and logic of his argument apply seamlessly to the relationship of education and state. If we substitute the word "education" for "religion" throughout Madison's text, we find a perfect parallel: First, parents have an inalienable right to educate their children according to their values; second, education must not be directed by the state; and third, education is corrupted by government interference or control. The parallel is stark, and the logic applies equally in both cases.

Just as Americans have a right to engage in whatever non-rights-violating religious practices they choose, so Americans have a right to engage in whatever educational practices they choose. And just as Americans would not grant government the authority to run their Sunday schools, so they should not grant government the authority to run their schools Monday through Friday.

Parents (and guardians) have a right to direct the education of their children. Parents' children are their children—not their neighbors' children or the community's children or the state's children. Consequently, parents have a right to educate their children in accordance with the parents' judgment and values. (Of course, if parents neglect or abuse their children, they can and should be prosecuted, and legitimate laws are on the books to this effect.) Further, parents, guardians, and citizens in general have a moral right to use their wealth as they judge best. Accordingly, they have a moral right and should have a legal right to patronize or not patronize a given school, to fund or not fund a given educational institution—and no one has a moral right or properly a legal right to force them to patronize or fund one of which they disapprove. These are relatively straightforward applications of the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—the rights on which America was founded.

But the educational system in America today systematically ignores and violates these rights. At its core, America's system of state-controlled education is compulsory. It involves force from top to bottom: The state forces children to attend its schools (or state-approved alternatives). It forces taxpayers—whether or not they use the schools—to pay for them. It dictates what is taught in the classroom through its mandatory curriculum. And it dictates how teachers are to teach the content, through its requirement and control of teacher certification.


Because a government school system violates rights in such a fundamentally crucial area of life—education—it constitutes, as Madison said of a religious establishment, "a dangerous abuse of power." Government should never be in the business of forcing or controlling the mind—and nowhere is this principle more important than with respect to the education of young minds. Unfortunately, many Americans today willingly accept this dangerous abuse of power.

Although most parents embrace the responsibility of feeding their children and wouldn't dream of letting the government dictate what will be put in their children's bodies, they relinquish the responsibility of educating their children and permit the government to dictate what will be put in their children's minds. Few Americans see that this is what they are doing, but this is what they are doing. Consider how this all begins.

One day, when a child turns five or six, his parents drive him to the local government school and say, "Good-bye." What the parents typically do not realize is that when they say good-bye to that child, they are literally and forever saying good-bye to that child—to that unique, irreplaceable child they have raised, nurtured, and loved since birth. When the child comes home in the days, weeks, and months ahead, he or she will have become a different person; his mind will have changed, his views of the world will have formed, his values will have developed. In time, he will have spent his formative years—seven hours per day, five days per week for thirteen years—at a government institution whose purpose is to indoctrinate him with state-approved ideas and values, regardless of whether his parents approve of those ideas and values. When it comes to state-run schools, as government school advocate Lester Frank Ward stated candidly in 1897, "the result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupil." The goal of a compulsory, state-run educational system is to ensure that children conform to the desires of the state. Education by the state is education for the state.

Given such facts about government education, one conclusion is clear: America's system of government-run schools must be abolished. This is the only policy consistent with the rights of parents and guardians and with the proper purpose of government, which is to protect and not to violate rights.


Abolishing the government school system will not be easy. The forces defending the status quo are powerful and entrenched. At present, three major groups support the current system, and many of their members will oppose all efforts toward establishing a free market in education.

The first of these, the education establishment—the teachers' unions, the so-called ed schools or teacher training institutions, and the government education bureaucracy—will, like Southern slaveholders, fight tooth and nail against the emancipation of America's children and their parents. Many people in the education establishment believe their jobs depend on maintaining the status quo—and in many ways they do. Many in the education establishment are incompetent and would not fare well if required to compete with the competent rather than rest on their laurels. And many in the establishment are simply not concerned with educating children and will do anything to keep their jobs, regardless of how bad the schools are or become.

But the education establishment is not the main obstacle to abolishing the government school system and adopting a free market in education. The greatest impediment to educational freedom is the American people themselves.

Most Americans have been convinced—in large part by the education establishment—that the "public" school system, despite its obvious failings, is the bedrock of our "democracy" and the source of our national prosperity. As regards the government schools, Americans have a kind of "Stockholm syndrome." They support the very schools in which they suffered profound abuse and on behalf of which their rights are routinely violated. Because I frequently cite the significance of this phenomenon, my former colleague, the historian Eric Daniels, has termed it the "Thompson Paradox": Most Americans recognize that the nation's education system is failing but nevertheless insist that their local government school is doing a great job of educating their children. Ironically, American parents express the highest degree of satisfaction with their local schools of any parents in the developed world, despite the fact that their children are among the worst performers on international tests. This dissonance is fueled by the education establishment, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars every year on propaganda to the effect that government schools are necessary, doing pretty well, and could be doing much better if only they had more money.


The third obstacle to establishing a free market in education is the so-called school choice movement. Despite all of its rhetoric about freedom and choice, this movement does not promote freedom or choice in education; rather, it promotes the perpetuation of government schools and the expansion of government involvement in education.

The main way the school choice movement does this is by advocating vouchers, which are, in effect, food stamps for education. Voucher programs assume that children have a "right" to a tax-funded education and thus that taxpayers must be forced to support government schools and/or pay for vouchers. But if real rights are to be protected and if education is to be freed from government force, the premise that children have a "right" to a tax-funded education must be rejected, not embraced.

Further, vouchers undermine and corrupt private education by gradually turning private schools into government-controlled schools. When government provides students with vouchers, government obviously has a say in where and how that money is to be used.

Finally, the purpose of voucher programs is to reform the existing system of government-controlled education by injecting some degree of choice and competition into it. The goal is to make a corrupt system more efficient and effective in order to save and perpetuate it. To the extent that vouchers marginally or temporarily improve education, they undermine efforts to do what morally must be done. They undermine efforts to endgovernment involvement in education—and they extend the coercive reach of government into private schools.

If we care about protecting individual rights and enabling all American children—rich, poor, and in between—to receive a quality education, we must abolish government schools and establish a genuinely free market in education....


As the government school system is dismantled, more and more opportunities will arise for entrepreneurs and educators to pursue free market alternatives. And once the government school system is completely abolished, a fully free market will enable educational alternatives and opportunities we can only imagine.

Of course, we cannot specify in detail what a fully free market in education will look like, just as we cannot know what our computers or phones will be like in five years, never mind twenty or thirty years. What we can know is that, given the law of supply and demand and given the enormous value that parents place on education, education entrepreneurs—when left free—will innovate and compete such that educational alternatives and opportunities will expand, and costs of education will (generally) decrease.

To the extent that businessmen and educators are free to act on their judgment and to pursue profits, they can and will work to provide good education at affordable prices. That is the only way to make money in a free market. Likewise, to the extent that parents are free to act on their judgment, they will pursue the best educational opportunities they can find given the needs of their children and the money they can afford to pay; thus, parents will reward businessmen and entrepreneurs who provide good educational opportunities at affordable prices. The result is a win-win-win-win system in which businessmen, educators, parents, and students all profit and prosper.

When school leaders and teachers know they must compete for every child who might attend their school, and when they know that parents are always on the lookout for a better and less expensive product, they are more likely to deliver the kinds of education that their customers want at affordable prices. Quality goes up and prices go down. This is how a free market works, and we can see it in every sector to the extent that it is free.

Consider the cell phone industry or the clothing industry or the Lasik surgery industry, or any other relatively free sector of the economy. What you will see is that when people are free to produce and trade in accordance with their judgment, opportunities and alternatives multiply, and prices make economic sense. That's the way it works for all goods and services in a market economy. And education is no exception.


In a free market for education, new schools would be created to meet the demand, resulting in a cornucopia of educational diversity. New for-profit and nonprofit schools would open. Existing private schools would expand. Church-run schools would open or expand. University- and college-run schools would open or expand. Schools run by major corporations such as Apple and Boeing would open or expand. Big chain schools owned and run by tutoring companies such as Sylvan Learning, small neighborhood schools run by voluntary associations of parents, and online private schools owned and administered by education entrepreneurs would open or expand. And, of course, homeschooling would thrive....

Only a free market in education is consistent with a rights-respecting society. The principle of individual rights requires the separation of school and state, the full freedom of educators to produce and parents to purchase education services in a competitive market where providers and customers strive continually for better ideas, better methods, and better results—at lower costs.

Just as our forefathers successfully fought to end slavery, and their forefathers successfully fought to separate church and state, let us carry on the fight to expand freedom in America by ending the tyranny that is the government school system.

DMU Timestamp: February 17, 2024 22:33

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